The Subtleties of the Real Japan

THE ENIGMA OF JAPANESE POWER by Karel van Wolferen New York: Alfred A. Knopf 496 pp., $24.95 AMERICANS and others with a genuine desire for a balanced and useful analysis of the unique Japanese social and political system and its meaning for the rest of the world frequently have to settle for less they want.

On the one hand, there are those fawning descriptions of the beauty of Japanese artistic culture, the cleanliness of Tokyo's streets, or the prowess of Japan's international traders.

On the other hand, there are populist politicians and simple-solution commentators who want to bash the Japanese for ``taking American or European jobs'' or freeloading on the Western military alliance.

The real Japan is more complicated than either of the alternatives of uncritical admiration and simplistic (or even racist) Japanophobia.

Karel van Wolferen, a journalist who has spent the last 15 years covering East Asia for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad has written a book that captures the subtleties of Japan and its relations with the outside world. And it is a book that makes a stinging indictment of the entire Japanese social and political system.

In a summary statement near the end of his well-documented, near-encyclopedic essay, van Wolferen condemns the Japanese system for its lack of choice: ``The systematic deprivation of choice in practically all realms of life bearing on the political organization of Japan is essential for keeping the System on an even keel.''

Van Wolferen documents the lack of political choice: the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is the ultimate ``old boy network.'' The Japanese have no choice in education or the job market: The system is designed to produce highly trained but unoriginal technicians who will serve one company or government agency for their entire lifetimes. The Japanese have no choice of news sources: A nominally free press is, in fact, subject to subtle but effective forms of censorship and self-censorship. And finally the Japanese have no choice in their marketplace: Government economic policies allow consumers less cash to spend than their national wealth would otherwise dictate and limit the products (especially foreign products) that consumers may buy.

Futhermore, says van Wolferen, the political system itself, dominated as it is by the LDP, is incapable of genuinely debating real policy alternatives. He writes, ``Discussions, such as can be found in European countries and the United States, with intellectuals and political representatives putting forward identifiable and conflicting opinions that result in a give and take, in education of the citizenry and above all in altered policies, are unknown in Japan, where nothing of substance is debated in the proper meaning of the term.''

The reasons for the debilitating degree of power diffusion or ``statelessness'' in Japan are deeply rooted in the culture. Japan is insular and xenophobic toward outsiders. The Japanese believe in their own cultural superiority but this belief appeals neither to a God nor a natural law against which the system can be judged.

In the end, personal relations, rather than law, govern the conflicts between competing interests: ``The administrators have fostered complex personal ties that thrive on mutual aid, and their major task has been, by preventing laws and courts from becoming the supreme regulators of society, to keep those relationships and the rules that govern them informal.''

There is much about Japan that is genuinely admirable. But, as van Wolferen shows, there are many aspects of the Japanese system that are dysfunctional, not the least of which is its heavy reliance on government control of the economy - call it socialism, statism, or corporationism, it is not a free-market system.

After 40 years in which Japanese economic statism and protectionism have out-performed the more free-market economies in international trade, it would now be a perverse irony for the US to imitate Japan's example (just as Japan itself seems to be turning away from protectionism).

In economics and in politics, we would all be better off if Japan became more like the United States, not vice versa.

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